BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

How to Tell if Cats are Playing or Fighting: It’s Cat’s Play

Image showing two cats playing together
Martha Harvey
Written by Martha Harvey

It’s great to see cats interact with one another until you notice that their roughhousing is getting too heated for comfort. By the time you manage to separate them, both of them now have cuts and scratches all over their body. You may start to berate yourself for not realizing sooner that they were fighting, not playing. You shouldn’t be too hard on yourself—it can be hard to tell the difference sometimes—but you should avoid making the same mistake by learning proper ways on how to tell if cats are playing or fighting.

Cats can reap plenty of benefits from playing with other cats no matter their life stage. However, in a multiple cat household, knowing when the chasing, scratching, biting, and gnawing get too severe to be considered healthy matters a lot. Even cats that have lived together from the time they were born could have dangerous skirmishes from time to time. Being able to tell when you need to step in as well as when you should let them keep playing could mean the difference between life and death.

Image of two cats relaxing together on the couch

Here, you will learn how to tell if your cat is merely playing with other cats or if he is getting hurt in a big fight. We will also explain what you should do to break up the fight without getting hurt yourself, and the preventive measures you can undertake so your beloved cats’ playtime would stay peaceful in the future instead of escalating into an all-out war. Find out how you can save your cat from the pain of collecting battle scars.

Is Your Cat Playing or Fighting?

Cats learned to scratch and chase each other around during playtime from the time when they were still kittens. These behaviors are considered positive by animal behaviorists because it indicates that they are eager to socialize with others.

When cats reach the full adult stage, owners should not be alarmed to see them still exercising the same behavior with other cats. Most of the time, the scratching and biting are harmless. However, sometimes owners notice that their cats are no longer joking around—they are actually crossing over to aggression.

two cats fighting outside

Cat parents are often unsure of when to step in, so they merely observe from the sidelines. But must they wait for their cats to be inflicted with severe injuries before they realize that the “play” is developing into a dangerous thing? The answer is no. There is a way to tell the difference between playing and fighting quickly so you can step in before both cats end up severely hurt.

Understanding Different Types of Cat’s Play

You should know by now that owning a cat is not a walk in the park despite cats having a reputation for being independent. They may demand less attention from their owners, but there are definitely times when they just want to have some company.

If you’re often away from home, it’s best to keep more than one cat at a time so they can keep each other company. Cats, like most animals, engage in play when they are young, and this can continue well into their geriatric years.

Image of two kittens on a road

Cat’s play is a complex learning activity that helps both kittens and adult cats hone their physical and mental skills, and develop their social relationships. Depending on the purpose, there are three different forms of play that cats involve themselves in:

Type of Cat’s Play #1: Social Play

Social play is very helpful for kittens as they to learn to interact with their littermates, their mother, and other cats in the household. During this life stage, kittens need to test the world around them in order to learn about their place and their role.

Two cats playing on the bed

Through social play, kittens develop personality traits based on the playful interactions they are exposed to. They will eventually carry these traits into adulthood. As kittens grow, they will also learn to play with their human caregivers.

Type of Cat’s Play #2: Object Play

One of the reasons why humans should provide their cats with toys is because they are naturally curious about everything around them. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that your cat loves to poke, bat, and toss around small objects. Even the silent yarn in the corner will fall victim to their curiosity.

Two cats playing with a toy mouse

Kittens stomp, flip, and basically just do what they want with their toys. This is actually an indication of the cat’s survival skills kicking in. These acts are what cats do when they want to overpower and kill a prey for food. Object play teaches cats how to distinguish between animate and inanimate things. Object play also helps teething kittens relieve the itching in their gums.

Type of Cat’s Play #3: Locomotor Play

Active cats are always a joy to have. Be glad when you see them running, jumping, leaping, and even biting each other lovingly. This helps them increase their strength, flexibility, and coordination. Locomotor play, as with every mammal, actually helps improve the appetite of cats. The locomotor play also helps reduce a cat’s nocturnal perambulations.

Two cats fighting outside

You should encourage your cats to get involved in all these types of play. You can introduce them to other cats or get them cat companions so they would be exposed to animals from the same species. Playtime encourages animals to be happier, healthier, and more intelligent. Unfortunately, playtime can also get out of hand really quickly.

If it is object play, you don’t need to get concerned about your cat getting hurt—as long as you make sure the thing they’re playing with doesn’t have pointy edges and isn’t toxic. However, social play and locomotor play can get dangerous if one of the cats involved starts to show signs of aggression.

Recognize the Signs of Aggression

The body language and vocalization of cats are very important clues to take into consideration if you are trying to determine if your cats are still playing or are already hostile towards each other. The cat’s play is veering into dangerous territories if you see these signs:

  • Ears flat against their head
  • Unsheathed claws
  • Growling or hissing
  • Yowling in pain
  • Raised hackles
  • The tail is waving from side to side
  • They stop taking turns. Cat owners must realize that if cats are playing, they usually take turns chasing each other. If it’s a fight, the dominant cat would usually pin the weaker down and intently hurt the weaker one by biting.

If you recognize any of those signs, don’t hesitate to step in. Even if they are actually only playing, it’s better to be safe than sorry. By breaking up increasingly violent roughhousing, you’re also teaching your cat that you don’t appreciate them hurting each other—even accidentally—while playing.

How to Break Up the Fights

Seeing your cat getting hurt could push you to get in-between the two cats instinctively. This is the wrong course of action. You have to remember that you must not physically separate the cats bare-handed. You will very likely get hurt if you attempt to do so.

Image of a tabby cat fighting with another one

Apart from the possible physical pain that it would cause you, the cats may also redirect their aggression towards you. While you could very likely ward them off, you might accidentally hurt them while trying to keep them away. They may change their behavior towards you even after the fight is long over.

Look for a safer way to separate fighting cats. The key is to divert their attention.

  • You can choose to make a sudden loud noise to break the fight.
  • If the cats still keep going back towards each other, you can try to use something to block their line of view.
  • Keep the cats in separate rooms until they both eventually calm down.
  • It would also help to understand why your cat became hostile from the first place. Learn what aggravates him and see if he exhibits such behaviors when interacting with other cats. If he is hostile all the time, perhaps you need to get advice from a professional.

How to Prevent the Fights

Every owner wants their feline companions to be happy and to treat each other in a friendly and respectful manner. Some cats hit it off right away while others never really get along over the course of their life. No matter which category your cats fall into, you can keep the household peaceful and prevent fights using these preventive measures.

The First Impression is Important

There are times when you want to add a new cat to your family, but you are afraid that the other cats would be hostile to him. In a multiple cat household, do not just assume that since the other cats are getting along fine that the new addition would instantly be accepted.

Two cats meeting for the first time through a glass door

Cats are solitary animals, and their initial reaction to a new addition to their family wouldn’t typically be welcoming. This is normal, and you cannot force your cat to act friendly immediately. Even humans would hate it if they are suddenly forced to interact with people they are unfamiliar with or are not friends with.

Carefully introduce the cats to each other until they eventually warm up and become playmates. Now, if you happen to see your cat and the new cat charge at each other with all their might during the first meeting, then you should automatically know that they are not engaged in play at all. It takes time for them to start getting comfortable enough in each other’s presence to let down their guard and play—especially if both are adult cats.

Let Them Know That There is No Competition

To encourage the cats to see each other in a different light and to live in peaceful co-existence, you can start by making sure that they have equal resources so there would be no need to compete.

two young cats resting on round pillow lokking into camera

Cats will instinctively be hostile if they see that the other gets more food or love than they do. They will think of the other as an intruder that’s a threat to their position and fights will ensue.

Check your surroundings to determine if it is multiple-cat friendly. Do you have ample elevated space for each cat to perch on? Do you have enough secluded corners for them to hide in if they are in need of some peace and quiet?

Provide an Outlet for Their Energy

Understand that cats are natural predators and they often exhibit aggressive behavior when they have no way to work off their energy. Encourage your cats to engage in interactive sessions each day to keep them from competing and hurting each other.

Two kittens playing in bed with a toy

If you notice that your cats are not getting along, try to do individual sessions for playtimes. Keep the cat engaged and focused using puzzle toys and puzzle feeders. You can also introduce other outlets to stimulate the cat’s energy so they would forget about picking fights with other cats.

Divide Your Attention and Love Equally

It also helps a lot if the cat owner could dedicate some time to cuddle with each cat—preferably separately, although you can do both at the same time. Although they do not seem to show it, cats love to spend time with their human companions, and they bask in the love and attention that you give them.

Brown haired woman holding tow kittens in her arms

Set aside an hour or so to just spend time with them and to observe their relationship. Make sure to give plenty of loving to both sides, or one of them could get jealous.

Wrap Up

If you keep more than one cat, there would be days when a seemingly innocent playtime could develop into fierce fights. If you are a cat owner who is often alarmed by the way your cats play, remember all the aforementioned indicators of hostility and aggression.

If you observe those signs in your cats, make sure to step in and break up the fight. You have to be very careful not to use your bare hands when intervening so you would not end up hurting yourself.

two cats playing on the carpet in house

Go ahead and let your cat play. You should even encourage it. But also make sure that they will not end up hurting each other in the process.

How many cats do you live with? What kind of relationship dynamics do you observe between them? Do they often come out of playtime suffering injuries? If you have a surefire method of breaking the fights up that wasn’t mentioned above, please let us know in the comments section below!

About the author
Martha Harvey
Martha Harvey

Martha Harvey is a skilled veterinarian and a member of American Veterinary Medical Association from Greeley, Colorado. She has 20 years experience of working in Animal Hospital. Martha loves all of her patients, but her favorite one is the Russian Blue cat Stitch, who lives with her.

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